How do you talk to someone who interprets everything as an attack?
February 28, 2013 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me Metafilter! I need cognitive and/or behavioral hacks to better deal with someone whose anxiety/self-esteem issues tend to make every conversation into a battle.

I have a problem with certain people in my life (one especially), that whenever I bring up a topic of conversation - especially if the topic is an issue or problem that needs solving - they immediately get defensive and begin talking about their intentions and feelings vis-a-vis the topic, instead of the topic itself/potential solutions. Thus the conversation gets derailed dealing with the person's defensiveness/insecurity/feelings and reassuring them, or trying to convince them that it wasn't an attack on them personally, and will you please talk about X now? They usually eventually realize and come around, but by that point we've been talking for an hour, and it's emotionally and mentally exhausting (not to mention impractical time-wise). And ultimately, the original problem (X) almost always goes unsolved, or a quick-fix is slapped on at the end because we are both exhausted from the long lead-up. Needless to say this is not a sustainable long-term dynamic.

Things I have tried: bringing up X in as non-confrontational and neutral way as possible ("I" statements, ex. "I have a concern about X, I would like to talk to you about what we can do about it...") The issue is not with the couching, it is with the person's response. They have diagnosed high anxiety and are on medication for it, but self-esteem and anxiety issues lead them to interpret every discussion or conflict (heaven forbid it actually be something they did) in the worst possible light, before even reaching the main point of the conversation. I know that I am not in control of another person's responses, but the immediate defensiveness often "trips my trigger" as it were and I go into argument mode pretty quickly - so while I start out on a healthy/assertive note, the dynamic spirals downward quickly.

I guess what I need is ways to stop myself from engaging in/spiraling downward into the "no, I know you didn't TRY to, no, I know you don't have bad intentions, no - that isn't my &%$! point!!! LISTEN!!" quicksand. I would like something to say, or a way to visualize this dynamic to myself, that allows me to remain cool and calm instead of becoming frustrated and angry, and which allows the other person to see that they are indeed not being attacked (my angry and frustrated response, while it is directed at the conversation and not at the original subject, effectively works to reinforce this person's fear of attack and rejection, therefore exacerbating the cycle for future conversations).

Please assume, for practical purposes, that this is a person/people that I cannot just disengage with completely, for many compelling real-world (not simply emotional) reasons. Please also assume that the person doing this, is aware that they do it (in general, if not always in the moment); is currently in counselling, and that joint counselling to discuss communication issues is a distinct near-future possibility. I would still like some outside thoughts, hacks, etc, and if you have any particular strategies or thoughts to bring up with the counselor when we do go, let me know. I would like to be able to make maximum use of the sessions, especially as finances for therapy are limited.
posted by celtalitha to Human Relations (30 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Could you establish a cue, like a word or a gesture, or even a phrase, that lets the other person know that the discussion at hand is not an attack on them, but a discussion about something else?

My personal preference is for something slightly surreal and humorous and disarming, as it elicits a laugh and thus relaxes the person before the main conversation starts.
posted by LN at 12:50 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Email them with the issue to be resolved. Don't engage them verbally when you can avoid it. If they need to flip out, they can do so by themselves. That way you get out everything you need to say, they can have their moment privately, then they can hopefully get back on track and attempt the tackle the problem.
posted by inturnaround at 12:50 PM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

When you notice it happening, just stop talking. Become completely silent. The other person will have nothing to irrationally respond to and eventually stop talking himself, at which point you can quietly say something like "we were doing it again" and try to move on from there.

Every time you notice it start to escalate, close your mouth.

This has been my hard-learned tactic for political discussions with the family the last few years.
posted by phunniemee at 12:53 PM on February 28, 2013 [25 favorites]

If this person knows about the issue, it might make sense to develop some sort of out-of-the-blue signal (like a safety word) that can snap you both out of the cycle.

Next time, calmly discuss the conclusion of that kind of scenario and suggest that it happens with some frequency and neither side likes doing it. Then ask if they want to be reminded that neither side likes doing that when the next similar scenario pops up. "I am not trying to dismiss your concern I just know that it stresses us both out when it happens". It might help to use a completely absurd word that the other person might find amusing.

Splendifferous, snuffaluffagus, or singing "I'm a little Teapot" for example...

It will take a little practice, but if you guys trust each other, and they are aware of the pattern and dislike it, something like this may get you to the promised land.
posted by milqman at 12:54 PM on February 28, 2013

These arguments aren't leading to resolution of the problems you're bringing up, you say. So why even bring up the topic in the first place? Right this second you have two options 1) Bring up the problem, set off an argument, fail to resolve the problem or 2) Address the problem as best you can (or learn to live with the problem) without initiating a confrontation. The problem doesn't get solved either way but at least in the second option you don't have to fight.

For those problems you really do need to address, you need to figure out how to stop letting the defensiveness "trip your trigger," as you say. Maybe you could try saying, either out loud or just in your head to yourself, "I don't want to argue about this." Another strategy: remove yourself from the situation. "I can see that you're upset about this. Why don't you get back to me when you've decided what we should do."
posted by mskyle at 12:58 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nth'ing phunniemee. If the other person knows this is a problem and is working on it, the very best thing to do is just stop. Let them rant, then, without referring to the rant at all, go back to the problem:

"Hey, we need to work on Issue X."
"What?!? Are you saying it's my fault it's not done?!?"
"Oh, fine, it's ALL MY FAULT!"
"Oh, I was doing it again, wasn't I. I'm sorry."
"I was thinking that Issue X might respond to Solution Y."
posted by Etrigan at 1:01 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

while I start out on a healthy/assertive note, the dynamic spirals downward quickly.

As the person who recognizes this spiral you need to break out of it. Which means you need to respond in a different way or find a different way to engage. No conversation you do not want to have should last an hour, period. Stop engaging. I have worked out some of these issues in a more emotion-based situation [i.e. friends and family] and less of a workplace situation and I think your relationship to the person matters in terms of what you will be able to do and not do. A few suggestions

1. email or IM - give the person time to collect their thoughts and respond to you in a way where you can sort of skip the "I FELT THIS WAY AND BLABLA" aspect of their response and get to the part that helps you solve the problem.
2. Lead with a solution - you seem to be the one identifying the issues. Come to the table with things that would solve the problem. Offer them. Debate that issue not the "when you said this I felt that" part of it. Again it really matters whether this is a friend, lover or parent.
3. "We will deal with that next, right now I need to figure out how we're going to deal with picking your mother up from the airport" - make it clear that they are heard but shoot down the spiral and come back to it. And do not engage in any discussion that is not talking about the issue at hand
4. Check your tone - you may be coming across as saying something more like "You did this wrong" than "I'd like the two of us to work on a way to do this" even if you don't mean to. Acknowledge your own tone/approach and try to mitigate it as you're saying it. For whatever reason the two of you have a broken thing here, so look at the parts you can control. If you respond angrily it sort of doesn't matter what exactly you are angry at. Knock that off. Show through your actions that you can work on your part of this.

At some level at the point at which you've said "I am not attacking you" and you and they have worked out that issue generally in some good faith way, their anxiety reactions to you raising an issue are theirs to manage and deal with. For me I am often like "Sweetie I hear what you are saying but I'm not mad, I just need us to find way that we can get to the movies on time next time because this isn't working. Can we focus on that?"
posted by jessamyn at 1:07 PM on February 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

It sounds to me like this person wants to vent about their feelings on a topic before discussing the topic. This is pretty common and it can be important for some people to process their feelings before coming to some sort of decision - I am that way myself. I don't think this is necessarily wrong or unproductive.

If you want to come to some sort of common ground with this person, could you sit down the first time with the understanding that you WON'T come to any sort of conclusion - you'll just talk about your feelings on each side?

If you don't feel capable of doing this sort of emotional dialogue, you could bring up the topic and then table it for a later date. Let the other person process their feelings with friends or other people in her support network, then get back together afterward. Email is probably a good way to do this.
posted by muddgirl at 1:09 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this is a work situation, then you can be as brusk as you want.

"I need to get some information about the X project, and I don't have time for you to do your whole anxious, freak out thing."

Frankly, I'd use that approach for everything. But I have very little patience these days.

If it's a family member, I'd do something more like, "Mom, I have a question about the safety deposit box. I need the answer in as few words as possible."

The other thing is try to be as positive in your wording as possible, don't say "problem" say "Opportunity"

For example, "I have a problem we need to work out" sounds scary and blamey. Where as, "Hey, there's an opportunity to optimize the process here, do you have a few minutes to brainstorm," is more positive.

I will say that using positive wording works SO MUCH BETTER for everything in life.

What sounds better and less naggy? "Don't forget to put the garbage out!" or "Remember to put the garbage out!"

Let me tell you, when you say "remember", they do. When you say "forget", they do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:20 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, the main person who does this is my children's father; there are other people in my life (parents, friends) who do it as well to a greater or lesser degree, so the question itself is open-ended intentionally. By "practical purposes" I meant that I can't (in most cases) just simply quit dealing with the person. mskyle's suggestion of solving the problem unilaterally or "learning to live with it" is therefore not an acceptable overall solution - although I am trying to learn to choose my battles more discerningly. I am still reading and pondering the responses, but thanks everyone who has answered so far.
posted by celtalitha at 1:42 PM on February 28, 2013

When I interact with people who do this I start the conversation by saying something like "I have something to talk about and it's probably something that's going to trigger that defensive thing you do that we've talked about. So it might be difficult or take awhile - is now a good time? If not, when could we do it? It's kind of important."

Also, when the defensive thing starts I wait my turn and say "When I said [statement], what did you hear?" Then I can listen to what they say and model the type of listening that I want them to do (like "Hmm, that's interesting. I don't think I'm mad at you - hold on, let me think about it - no, not about this anyway. So, no, I'm pretty clear I'm not attacking you - it must be hard for you to feel attacked so often, but it's hard for me too, cause I feel like I'm being treated like I'm a hostile person.")
posted by jasper411 at 1:57 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Something you might want to try if you keep finding yourselves in these conversations: Validating with Purpose. The core is that you can oftentimes move a conversation along, not by reassuring or by convincing, but by simply verbally acknowledging that they are feeling the way they feel.
posted by muddgirl at 1:58 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience, these are some things you can do to make this a little easier.

1.) Recognize that there is nothing you can do to prevent the person you're talking to from feeling a certain way, or how they are going to react to their feelings about it. Accept up front that there is going to be a certain amount of carrying on and drama in your interactions. It's clear you're already doing that, but I have found that steeling myself in advance for it before any interaction with a person like this can make a very big difference. If you can even say to yourself "I have 30 minutes for this conversation and I accept that all 30 minutes of it are going to be somewhat unpleasant" before going in, this actually can help, at least in my personal experience!

2.) Approach your interactions with this person, in your own mind, as a transaction. "I am going to call Fred because I need [x result]. It is going to cost 30 minutes worth of my emotional energy." If you see it as "I pay y for x", you are more likely to at least get the y you are looking for, or feel better about taking your ball and going home for a while if it is apparent that spending your y isn't going to get you any x. You can come back to it later if you must.

3.) You are already modifying your approach by using "I statements" and not using other forms of speech that might trigger someone's defensiveness. Another thing to do is to try to form all of your sentences and requests in such a way that they are definitive and expect yes or no responses. It is more work for you upfront, but possibly less exhaustion in the long run. So if, you are calling because something went poorly previously, and you want them to do something differently in the future, instead of saying "I feel that we weren't prepared for that meeting with the programmers, and I'd like to talk about ways to prepare better in the future," say "I think that when we meet with the programmers next week, if you put an agenda together beforehand, it will be really productive and efficient - I can help you if you need it. Can you put one together for Tuesday?

4.) It sounds as though you have enough experience with this kind of personality to use the disarming technique of a potentially confrontational conversation. If you approach the conversation with the techniques in my point above, you will probably have to do this less. But you still may get an emotional response instead of a "yes or no" response. For example, if the person responds to a request like "Next time you drop our kid off at school, can you make sure she has her jacket with her?" with something like: "You think that I am a terrible parent!" you can respond with "I can understand why you feel that I am judging your parenting skills, because I am asking you to try something different. But that's not at all what I've said - what I am asking you for is a completely practical matter and has no bearing on your value as a parent."

5.) Decide in advance what matters most in any interaction you have with a person like this. Is preserving their feelings and not causing a war more important? Or do you really NEED to get this person to do something? Know up front what the priority is and you'll be more successful.

6.) Finally, if it is still hard for you to stick to the points above, give yourself 20 minutes to write out bullet points of what you want out of this conversation, even if you don't bring them with you. Being prepared and focused on what you need to get out of your interactions will make you feel much more at ease.

Two books that may help:

Crucial Conversations - for good advice on how to get practical results from emotional situations.

The Feeling Good Handbook - for good insight into the kind of thought process that the person you're interacting with might be experiencing, so you can better interact.

Good luck!!
posted by pazazygeek at 2:24 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think that you may be fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the disconnect between someone who prioritizes processing feelings, and someone who prioritizes processing solutions.

I am also feeling based. If someone comes to me and says something as trivial as "I have a concern about X, I would like to talk to you about what we can do about it...", my response is always, straight out of the box, going to be processing how I feel about X, and how I feel about that person's concerns about X - because to me, that is the priority. That is absolutely the most important issue that needs to be resolved - how we feel about a situation, and solving and reassuring everyone's emotions about the situation.

Only once that is done will I move on to the situation itself - because I tend to view most problems as symptoms, rather than causes.

You seem to be thinking a lot about these conversations as having a "main point", and it's one that dovetails with what you want out of the conversation. But conversations are two way streets - this other person is not just a puppet to do things however you want. It's a give and take.

I promise you that if you treat resolving emotions as just an annoyance you need to get to in order to resolve the "real problem", you are not going to have productive conversations with this person. You need to understand that for some people, resolving emotions and feelings is a main issue too before you can even begin to approach it.
posted by corb at 2:24 PM on February 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Most problems in life can be addressed by changing something circumstantial, not behavioral. I try to focus on that. It is much less likely to make people feel blamed. I also try to show up with solutions, not complaints. "Hey, X is not working well. It is leading to y and z negative outcomes. I have thought about it and I am wondering if a, b, or c might work better. What's your opinion on trying one of those? Any objections? Any other suggestions?"

Best example I can think of: Years ago, I volunteered at a small homeless shelter for single women and families. It had wooden bunk beds in each room. The residents were not supposed to hang damp towels on the beds because it promoted growth of mold on the wood. But they were constantly in trouble for doing just that. So I went to the director and said "Hey, I was thinking about how people always get in trouble for doing that." Director begins to rant about badly behaved residents. I delicately note that they can only do laundry once a week and there is no place else to hang the towels and just think how gross damp towels piled on the floor would get. She looks epiphanied and shuts up. I say I have done some looking around and I can get over-the-door towel racks with four bars for x bargain price and I offer to buy one for each room. (Four bars mattered because it was typically four people to a room and most such racks had three bars.) She happily agrees. I brought them in. Residents suddenly stopped "behaving badly" and happily hung their towels on the racks.

You also might arrange to give them time to think about it and not expect an immediate reply. My ex and I had a lot of friction over rearranging furniture. I eventually realized he didn't deal well with having sudden, unexpected change thrust upon him. I found that he coped a lot better if I said "I am thinking of rearranging furniture in the next week or two. We can talk about it in a few days. Just giving you a heads up." Whereas dumping on him on Friday night that I wanted to rearrange furniture Saturday went over quite poorly.

(Then, later, I stumbled across the fact that he didn't actually care how the furniture was arranged. He just hated helping rearrange it. I would have gone ballistic if he had rearranged furniture in my absence. So I was trying to be respectful and let him have a say in things. But, really, just doing it when he wasn't home didn't bother him in the least. So I eventually rearranged furniture to my heart's content, every time he was out of town for his job. So, these days, I am very inclined to wonder what I might be able to do to solve it myself. Sometimes it is just not true that other people need to be involved or consulted.)
posted by Michele in California at 2:29 PM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

I know you want to be polite, but I think this is a case where it's actually okay to just interupt him and say 'don't worry about it' and then continue on with the main point.
posted by MrOlenCanter at 2:44 PM on February 28, 2013

Similar to what jasper411 said, but possibly try a sort of Socratic approach? Like keep at him with questions like 'Why are you responding like I'm blaming you? Is that what you think the issue is? Did I say I thought you hadn't tried? What is giving you the impression that I doubt your intentions? Are you willing to help me find a solution? How could I approach this in a way that would make you not feel blamed?' - if you can say it in a calm way, obviously, not a challenging and defensive way, but in a 'what's really going on, here?' sort of way, like you really want him to answer the questions, not like you're shutting him down. I mean, it's irrational and you can't fight that with reason, so possibly there's no point, and it might be nifty if he could zip it for the duration of your conversations and take those questions home as homework - but questions might work better in keeping the flow moving forward.

Other than that, agreeing with LN and milqman - the concept of safe words has been useful for me for things like this. There are all sorts of things they're useful for in mundane life, but one of them might be for this, a la 'Bananafish. I just need you to help me find a solution'. This is unlikely to work if you've never had something like this going with him before, though - if you try to set it up now and for this reason, it will just mean 'I have the right to tell you to shut up' and it won't work any better than anything else you've tried so far. Possibly if you brought it up in joint counselling, though...

And maybe a general conversation while nothing else is going on that sets things up - something like 'When I talk about issues like X and Y, my goal is to get to a solution as quickly as possible and I give not a single shit how the situation came to be - I only want to work with you to find a mutually workable solution in the minimum amount of time. I'm not sure what your goal is or what you need in that sort of situation, but maybe you can work on noticing when you start to react that way, make a decision to take it offline, solve the probelm with me then and there, and then if you still feel we have some business you'd like to deal with about how you feel, you can bring it up as a separate thing?'

With someone I feel partnered with, I have more invested in listening and understanding and compromising and adapting to their method of processing things, especially when it seems like their needs are higher and they're less able to adapt to mine, but in this case I'm assuming it's not a partner relationship other than co-parenting...
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:54 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is very helpful, and a lot of things to consider; I promise I'm not going to threadsit, but pazazygeek's example of "please make sure daughter has her jacket next time" being read as "you think I'm a horrible parent!" is by far the closest thing to what I'm talking about here. I could see that one actually happening.

I am definitely thinking about the validation and emotional discussion sides - corb, I totally understand that is an element of it, and I am not disregarding the importance of his feelings about the topic. I understand that they are important. But I also really, really need to be able to address and resolve day-to-day scenarios like the jacket example without long dramatic blowback in-the-moment.

The questions suggested by you must supply a verb are closest to what I've tried to do in the past, but that is exactly why every conversation gets derailed into a talk about why he thought I was blaming him or whether or not I had approached it correctly, rather than being a talk about the original issue. I am fine discussing the conversation dynamic, discussing his feelings, or discussing the insecurity/"I'm a bad parent" feelings stuff in another talk, just not at the same time or to the exclusion of my own concerns.

And yes, that very framing of the issue smacks of me being condescending; which is an added difficulty to the matter. It's like I'm saying "you aren't paying enough attention to the Real Issues. You are being irrational and immature and unproductive." He gets that (unspoken) message, and it plays into the dynamic rather than helping it. Sigh. Lots of ideas to take to counselling... I am going to think about this some more.
posted by celtalitha at 3:12 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wrote this before I saw your response just now, but I think @corb's answer is dead-on. There are lots of discussions to be found on Google about the Jungian characteristics of thinkers and feelers, but this is a pretty concise evaluation of the differences (scroll down to "How do you prefer to make decisions and judgments?").

It also sounds like he might be "emotionally sensitive." Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) techniques are often recommended to help emotionally sensitive people get a stronger handle on their emotions. This blog might be a good starting point for more information. "The High Conflict Couple" might also be a good resource.

As you acknowledged, effectively validating his feelings will likely make a big difference. Validation is really hard if you aren't an emotional type, but it gets a lot easier with practice. This is a pretty good breakdown of how to effectively validate. This is also very effective with children.

Once you get the hang of effectively validating his feelings, I've found it extremely helpful to share your own feelings--even if they are only feelings of frustration. If you can offer some feelings about the topic that is being discussed--real feelings--you might be surprised that it gives him something to work with in regard to addressing the rational details that you want resolved.

Finally, when you are in the midst of the emotional derailing, it's hard to be mindful that he might be projecting his insecurities on you and that it's not really about the topic at hand. Reading "Getting the Love you Want" may provide some insight into the sources of these repeating conflicts and it would likely be worth a read to maximize the benefits of joint therapy.

The fact that he is willing to go to therapy is laudable. I know from experience how difficult it is to cross the thinking/feeling gap. Best of luck.
posted by ajr at 3:27 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, that's a really helpful example - the "Please make sure daughter has her jacket next time" issue.

When you say that: what would your purpose be in saying it? Do you think that this is a recurring problem, or is this more of a one-time thing that you're irritated by? (I know this is not a thing you mentioned, but since it's a good example I'm mentioning it.) If it's a one time thing, and not likely to be a recurring problem, you need to let it go - the only real reason for mentioning it is because you are irritated, and you (even if subconsciously) do want to call it out, because it's something that you do better and he has screwed up and you want to point it out.

If it's a recurring thing, and you really just want it fixed, I think the best way you can possibly solve it is to frame it as a thing that both of you do, even if you don't. Because if it's about solving the problems, it doesn't matter who's right. Try positing what you think might be the issue, and framing it as your thing - a day or two after you noticed the last offense.

"Man, isn't it such a hassle getting kids out in the mornings? The other morning I can't believe I sent Child off to school without her jacket. Where was my head at? I think I was freaking out about Y thing. Man, I feel really bad about it - it's really cold these days and I bet she was feeling miserable."

This - to you - probably sounds ineffective. It doesn't ask for solutions. But it /is/ effective, because it allows him to admit his own issues with that. "Yeah, me too. Man. What do you wind up doing when that happens?" If he doesn't move forward, you can move forward with your own. "What do you end up doing when that happens, Father? I try to make sure her coat is laid out on the table. Sometimes I still forget, but I feel like it helps me a lot."
posted by corb at 3:39 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

"no, I know you didn't TRY to, no, I know you don't have bad intentions, no - that isn't my &%$! point!!! LISTEN!!"

As others have said, just stop talking. Even if you have already started with the "no, I didn't mean that..." as soon as you catch yourself doing it just STOP talking, even if abruptly.

This is how every conversation with my mother goes and it took me 28 years to just STOP TALKING. You are not going to talk this person out of whatever feelings he/she is having, so don't try. Therapy will hopefully help with handling the feelings he/she is having.

Then the person will either run out of steam and hopefully you will be able to continue the discussion in a productive manner, or while you are NOT TALKING, think really hard about whether or not you really need to have this conversation.

Since the person is aware of his/her behavior, at least when you stop talking they can start to take that as a cue to maybe stop talking themselves and calm down a bit. My mother is not aware of her behavior at all so my only solution so far has been to stop talking, and if we try again and cannot start discussing something in a productive manner, I just stop talking again. If not, I either leave or just stop talking about whatever topic it is.

It is hard to just stop talking, but I've found that it is the only way to get through this type of discussion.
posted by fromageball at 3:42 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

So just to be clear, is this your ex, or is it someone you still have an intimate relationship with? I think the answer matters.
posted by MrOlenCanter at 3:55 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a partner with an ex like this (and a child) and part of their evolving parenting relationship has involved him learning how to do this. It's very very challenging, in part because it's easy to mimic the non-functional interactions they had when they were together and also because continuing to be civil parents of a teenager means they need to be able to communicate at least somewhat.

However she's frequently trying to draw him into what feels to me to be arguments about the parenting arrangement that really seem to be about their relationship. Their former relationship is over which means, to my partner, that he no longer has to engage in lengthy processing discussions with his ex about how she felt when he told her this and that about this other thing. It's not really as cut and dried as all that (or as heartless) there is a little bit of "when you said that, I felt this" discussion but absolutely all of it focuses on how to be the best CEOs of KidCorp, which is the job they share, and not how to get along with each other better (or get along better according to her) because that ship has sailed and part of the reason the relationship ended is because of her continual "let's make every interaction about me and my feelings" and it was unworkable.

So yeah if this is your ex, you have every right to draw the line at what discussions are necessary for co-parenting and what are "let's talk about the relationship" and actually set boundaries that you no longer have that kind of "let's process our feelings together" relationship and that is simply true and you wish them the best but this is a role you no longer play in their life. If for some reason this is actually someone you are IN an existing intimate relationship with (I am assuming it's not), that's a different situation and my previous advice holds.
posted by jessamyn at 4:00 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Re the jacket example:
My oldest is ASD and had executive function and short term memory issues and other issues as a kid. In spite of my vigilance, I had trouble making sure he had his jacket and backpack for school until I took to hanging them on the front doorknob so he had to go through them to get out the house. I later moved a dust covered, never used valet from the corner of the master bedroom to the front entrance of the apartment. Suddenly, it was the most used item in the house and both sons and spouse were competing for space on it.

So I am wondering if asking the child what the routine is like with dad/at dad's place might lead to a list of pain points as to why the jacket got forgotten. Then instead of saying "please make sure child has jacket" the conversation might go "Hey, Julie seems to have trouble remembering her jacket in the morning. Maybe the problem is a case of out of sight, out of mind? You know how kids are. I was wondering if it might be possible to store the jacket on a hook or coat rack by the front door instead of in the closet so she would be more likely to grab it on her way out."
posted by Michele in California at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thought problem: Ask your friend to discuss your issue with his counselor. Tell him that you believe a code-word agreement will be helpful in getting past this minefield. Let his counselor help you set the stage for this.

The the code-word tactic may help him to lever himself into a different viewpoint. I have had some success with my tendencies using a codeword as a sort of "heads up" signal. Please be advised that trust is an issue with codewords. Codeword agreements are not to be used casually if they are to be effective--abusing them can contribute to the deterioration of a relationship.

My assumption rests on the idea that he recognizes that his behavior is not always appropriate to a discussion. Be advised that you are entering into a feedback loop with this person when you do this. The codeword is not as much of a magic bullet you fire at an offender as it is a net dropped over a couple of squabbling cats: you are both in the same bag. Okay, my metaphore may be silly, but it won't work if you don't take it as seriously as you expect your friend to take it.

Patience is your main tool here, but humility helps a bit.

Good luck.
posted by mule98J at 4:27 PM on February 28, 2013

Response by poster: In answer to the common question, this is a partner with whom I have been separated for almost a month, due to the issue above and related (circumstantial stressors combined with mental health management). We love each other and would both like the relationship to work, but as such, it's been causing too much anxiety and unhappiness/feeling unsatisfied and "un-heard" on both sides, so we agreed that it would be best to take a bit of a break and go to therapy (independently and then possibly together) and see if these things are something we can work on, or if we need to move on to a coparenting-only relationship. So honestly, answers addressing either side are helpful.

The jacket example was simply an illustration of how the dynamic works - the children in question are ages two and five months, so they are not doing things for themselves.

The suggestions to stop talking when the spiral starts, for a "safe word" to identify the dynamic in action, and to bring clear solutions to the table rather than focusing on shortcomings - as well as working on validating feelings without getting caught up in a totally separate conversation - are all things I will be taking into consideration.
posted by celtalitha at 4:29 PM on February 28, 2013

Hmm. You mention being neutral and non confrontational, but have you tried being actively reassuring? I'm defensive and deal with a few defensive people, and at sensitive moments our conversations can even sound like, "oh hey, I know you have about a million things to carry back and forth, and you pack her bag so nicely that I never even have to iron anything (it's like you fold things with magic!), and you even brought along the cookies that she baked, which would've been so easy to just leave on the counter but she was SO glad that you packed for her, but I think one thing might've managed to stay behind, probably tucked away in the closet where it's so easy for something to hide behind something else, was her pink jacket. If you don't mind bringing that over, I'd really appreciate it, or maybe she can just wear her purple one if you're not up for the extra trip."

The book Crucial Conversations has similar but less obsequious suggestions. For instance, it suggests explicitly limiting the scope of the complaint before even making it. "You are a great cook, and I love the food you make. [Subtext: I am not saying you are a bad cook in general.] I just wanted to offer one comment about the spaghetti sauce in particular. I like the flavor and the way you put in so many vegetables. The one request I have is that I personally like sauce that has a little less salt."
posted by salvia at 7:37 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

The safeword idea requires your children's father to admit to both himself and you that he's pointlessly derailing conversations to get validation that he's a worthwhile human being in spite of his mistakes. I think that may be a tougher row to hoe than those suggesting it realize. The good news is that you don't actually need to get him to agree to respond to a safeword.

I find that a lot of these circular conversations happen because people think that if they find the right words to express the sentiment they're after, both parties will agree and all tension will evaporate. So they end up saying the same things over and over again in slightly varied language. "I don't think your intentions were bad," "I understand that sometimes circumstances prevent you from being at your best," "This is just a logistical problem we need to solve, not a referendum on your character," etc.

But what this does is create the impression that there is more to this conversation that needs to be teased out. There isn't. The problem is that he's returning the diaper bag to you with no wipes inside, or he's late to day care, etc. I suggest the "broken record" routine, where you settle on a polite phrase that encompasses the essence of "Stop derailing a practical conversation with emotional issues." Then employ that phrase every time he derails a practical conversation with his emotional issues.

When we change the above responses to "I don't think your intentions were bad," "I don't think your intentions were bad," "I don't think your intentions were bad," the other interlocutor cannot formulate new responses to the new things coming out of your mouth because no new things are coming out of your mouth. The first time you try this technique, he will ask you why you keep saying the same thing over and over. You can respond mildly, "Because we're not talking about what I think of you as a parent or a person, we're talking about how [the baby needs wipes/the day care needs the kids to be on time]." Eventually, he will get it.

He's used to you being a couple, and couples process emotions together. He thinks his self-esteem is still a matter of concern to you and that it's your job to listen to him. If you actively supported him when he struggled with his mental health before, he's misapplying that old pattern here. You need to gently but firmly let him know that bolstering his self-esteem is a job that you are taking a break from and may not return to at all.
posted by cirocco at 7:57 PM on February 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm with those who think Corb has an important perspective, but that sometimes/with some people, there IS NO coming back from the emotion-processing part of the conversation -- that's all that the person EVER wants to address. As a result, you sometimes need these other ways of breaking the cycle and getting to the practical matters that you hope can actually be fixed/addressed to some degree. I wish that everybody were self-aware and high-functioning in their own models of relating, but that so is not the case... (sigh)
posted by acm at 8:31 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Given the age of the kids, I would try super hard to be patient and forgiving with both myself and dad for at least another year. I generally assume anyone with a kid under age two is short of sleep and stressed out. People don't perform well under those circumstances. Some of this may get magically and mysteriously better without any intervention once the kids are a little bigger just because both parents will be less burdened
posted by Michele in California at 8:42 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

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